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Governor-general pick Julie Payette dropping bid to keep divorce files from public view

Former astronaut Julie Payette (right) and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take part in a news conference announcing Payette's appointment as Canada's next governor general, in the Senate foyer on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 13, 2017.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's choice for governor-general is dropping a bid to keep her divorce records from public view, a bid several Canadian news-media organizations had contested.

Julie Payette asked a Maryland court on July 18 to seal the records. That request came the day iPolitics, a Canadian news website, reported that she had been charged with assault in Maryland in 2011, but that the prosecutor had dismissed the charge about two weeks later and the assault had since been expunged from the public record, as permitted under state law.

News organizations including The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Postmedia Network, the CBC, CTV and iPolitics joined together as intervenors to contest the sealing order, arguing that scrutiny of Ms. Payette's background is in the public interest, given the importance of her new post as the Queen's representative in Canada.

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A judge lifted the sealing order later in July, with some redactions of information related to Ms. Payette's teenage son, then stayed it pending an appeal by Ms. Payette. That appeal was not expected to be heard until after Ms. Payette had taken up her post in October. But when the news organizations decided on Monday to publish stories about the legal dispute, she announced an end to the fight.

The documents are expected to be released on Tuesday.

In a public statement, Ms. Payette said on Monday that she had been fighting to protect her 14-year-old son from the effects of publicity. "Divorces are about fractured relationships and often, a sad parting of ways. This is particularly difficult when children are involved, thus the importance of protecting the ones we love and care about." But she said she will give up that fight, "for reasons of transparency and to leave no doubt.…I trust Canadians and media will distinguish between matters of public interest and private life."

The news organizations had given Ms. Payette's lawyers assurances that they had no interest in personal information about their client's son, according to a court filing.

"In our submissions, we took care to convey to the judge we had no interest in seeking records related to Ms. Payette's child," said David Walmsley, The Globe's editor-in-chief. "Our purpose in seeking the fullest public records was based on recent news events. We were in court in an attempt to examine ordinarily public documents related to the incoming governor-general."

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Ms. Payette, a former astronaut who has been to space twice, and her then-husband, William Flynn, a former fighter pilot who flew combat missions over Kosovo and the former republic of Yugoslavia for the Royal Canadian Air Force, filed divorce papers in 2013. A Maryland judge granted Ms. Payette a divorce in 2015, but a legal dispute between the two has dragged on into this year.

Ms. Payette said in a legal filing related to her attempt to seal her divorce files that she has sole custody of her son. Her legal filing went slightly further than her statement on Monday did. She said in her legal filing that she was acting in the best interests of her son and herself to protect against "ridicule."

"I have reason to believe that person(s) may be trying to expose facts of this case to people in Canada in an attempt to publicly ridicule me and I believe these actions will cause irrevocable harm to not only myself but my son," she said in an affidavit filed in Saint Mary's Circuit Court in Maryland, citing the news media's bid to unseal the records.

In the same filing, she said nothing in the court records alleges any criminal act. The records detail "personal and privileged information involving our finances, personal and real property, child support and personal matters about our marriage," the affidavit said.

She cited Quebec and Canadian law during the dispute in Maryland, saying that she had been told by her Canadian lawyer that all family-law cases are sealed from public inspection.

In fact, while Quebec's civil code prohibits the media from naming individuals involved in family-related court cases, other provinces such as Ontario have a presumption of openness.

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Ms. Payette, in a statement issued through Rideau Hall last month, called the incident involving the assault charge an "unfounded" allegation quickly dropped by the prosecution. Mr. Trudeau has declined to say what he knew about the dismissed charge, but said the government conducts a thorough background search before appointments to any high-profile post.

The Prime Minister said when he announced the successor to Governor-General David Johnston last month that Ms. Payette, who was born in Montreal in 1963 and speaks six languages, has made her mark as a scientist, jet pilot, athlete, public policy scholar, musician, and science and technology advocate.

Video: Julie Payette vows to serve ‘all Canadians’ as governor-general (The Canadian Press)
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